Experience has shown that the best way to get to know your customers is to utilize the “Listen, Observe, Think, Speak” – or LOTS – approach. In any customer interface situation, simply think LOTS and you will be surprised as to how easy it really is to get to know them. The guidelines for using the LOTS approach are quite simple:
The key thing to remember is that when a customer experiences an equipment failure, they typically will want to tell you about it – how it happened, when it happened, how it is impacting their workflow, and what will happen if you can’t get it back up and running quickly enough. In fact, they generally won’t even want to hear what you have to say until after they have already told you what they think their problem is – in their own words. And the only way to do this is to LISTEN to what they have to say.
By the time you arrive at the customer site, the machine has probably already been down for a couple of hours or more, and some customers may feel “compelled” to tell you everything they know about the “history” of the failure. Some of this “history” will be important for you to know, although most of it will undoubtedly be either incidental or unimportant with respect to helping you make the repair. However, from the customer’s perspective, virtually everything they have to tell you will be important to them at the time.
The good news is, that after just a little direct experience with each individual customer, you will find that you are more quickly able to get the important information out of them – first, by listening, and then by following-up with a few questions of your own to hone in on the most relevant pieces of information that you will need to help you make the repair. All it takes is a little experience in general – supplemented by a little “history” with a specific customer – to be able to shrink the process down to just a few questions, and just a little time to listen.
However, you should remember that it will be just as important to listen to what the customer has to say about what may have led up to the failure as it is to gauge how anxious or upset the customer is when they are telling you their story. In fact, the way in which they tell you their story (e.g., calm and collected, anxious or apprehensive, angry or “out for bear”, etc.) will generally dictate the degree to which you will need to listen to what they have to say. It is not just a matter of getting all of the information you need from the customer – you will probably get everything you need directly from the machine; it is more a matter of showing the customer that you do listen, and that what they have to tell you is important.
By doing so, you can help to “pull” the customer over to your side, convincing them that you are working together to understand not only what needs to be fixed, but within what overall business context the entire event will be taking place (e.g., meeting a production deadline, requiring an overtime shift, etc.).
Listening is always the right place to start; but listening is only the point of entry to the customer situation, and there are other important things that must also follow.
Observing always begins at the same time as listening. Words are just words; but the way in which they are spoken often help to tell a more complete story. Therefore, the next most important thing you will need to do once you arrive at the customer site is to OBSERVE how the customer acts while you are listening to what they have to say – as well as observing the situation around the machine itself.
By observing the customer, you can determine his or her exact state-of-mind with respect to what – or more appropriately, whom – you will be dealing. Fortunately, most of your customers will be reasonable when you deal with them; however, depending on their specific history with the machine, your company’s service plan – or you yourself – their responsiveness to you once you arrive on-site can be all over the place.
It is always beneficial to be aware of exactly where you stand when you enter the customer site; for example, will you be welcomed with “open arms”, or will you be more likely to get “shot off at the knees”? Knowing which scenario you are walking into will provide you with enough guidance to handle the customer appropriately while you are technically on their “turf”.
It will also be necessary to observe the machine – as well as the area in which it is located. Sometimes, simple things like a machine located too close to an eating or drinking area, or evidence of a stockpile of poor-quality, generic parts or consumables may provide you with a “clue” as to what may have caused the current – or, possibly, a future – equipment failure. But, the only way you will be able to find these “clues”, is to observe them.
However, listening and observing are still only half the battle! These two actions simply provide you with the preliminary information and the ability to assimilate and interpret it once you arrive on-site – but, now, you will need to act. However, before you act, you will next need to think!
Ever since grade school, we have all been told to THINK before we speak. Well, this is never as important as it is when you are dealing with customers – especially with customers who are dealing with an expensive and important piece of equipment that, for reasons they may or may not understand, just simply stopped working.
Since the first words out of your mouth once you arrive at the customer site are likely to be the ones that set the tone for the entire service call, it is absolutely critical that you choose them carefully. By way of review, we suggest that this can only be accomplished effectively if you have, in fact, first listened to and observed the specific environment into which you have entered. But even so – and in every case – before you speak, you must first think!
Some examples of things you may want to think about before you speak include:
- How to defend the fact that you have arrived late on-site, without coming across as being either uncaring, arrogant, or unapologetic.
- How to assure the customer that you will have their equipment up and running quickly enough for them to still make their deadlines – or why you cannot, and what other types of contingency plans may help them out in the interim (i.e., use of a loaner unit, etc.).
- How to explain that you may not be particularly knowledgeable about the specific piece of equipment that has failed, and how you will shortly be obtaining the repair information you require.
- How to tell them that the warranty on this specific piece of equipment has expired; that that they may have to pay for this specific service call; and/or what options they may actually have to make the existing situation (i.e., non-covered equipment) any better.
These are only a few representative examples of some of the potentially awkward – or even confrontational – situations that you may face when making a particular customer call. All of them – and countless others – require careful thought before a single word leaves your mouth.
Sometimes the most innocuous situation can be turned into a problem if the wrong words are spoken. It almost doesn’t matter whether the problem is a result of the use of incorrect information, inappropriate language, finger-pointing at the customer (or anyone else), political incorrectness, tone of voice, or just the customer’s perception (or misperception) that any of these cases has occurred. Whether it is your fault or not is irrelevant – the first words out of your mouth will generally set the stage for the remainder of the service call, so they better be right on – and they will require some thought.
If the previous three areas have already been handled adequately, this next part should be the easiest one for you to accomplish. After you have sufficiently listened, observed, and thought, you should be in an excellent position to – finally – SPEAK!
Remember, when you are at the customer site, you are the expert. You are the one – and the only one – that the customer is depending on to assess the situation, repair the equipment, and get them back to some semblance of normalcy. This is an enormous burden if you are not adequately prepared. However, if you are, once again, this should be your easiest task.
But what you ultimately speak must be concise, focused, and informative. You should focus primarily on items such as asking about the specific problem at-hand, collecting information, gaining an idea of the “lay of the land” with respect to the customer site and related activity and; after assessing the situation, telling the customer what you are going to be doing, about how long it should take, and what you expect the ultimate result to be – to the best of your ability, and with the information you have available.
This does not mean to say that you cannot talk briefly about such things as the local sports team, traffic, or even the weather. However, it does makes common sense to avoid saying anything politically incorrect, confrontational, or “catty”, such as attempting to blame someone else about your late arrival, pointing the finger with respect to an equipment failure (especially at the customer), or talking about personal matters, like politics or religion.
Still, it will be the spoken word that the customer will remember long after you have left the site. That is why it is so important to do the thinking, after you have done the listening and observing. Consider everything you say to have “legs”. Once you say it, it will be frozen in time as far as the customer is concerned.
If you make a promise, you will be expected to keep it – or explain why you can’t; if you point a finger at someone else, you can expect to have a finger pointed back at you; if you blame the customer for something (whether they were responsible or not), they will find something to blame you about later.
However, if you are upfront with the customer, and you provide them with an ongoing stream of information, kept promises, and guidance for managing their equipment better, they will work along with you – as opposed to against you – for the duration of your customer relationship.